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Next move on Obama library up to the city, Park District VP says

After a second public hearing Wednesday on the University of Chicago’s proposal to build a Barack Obama Presidential Library on Park District property, Avis LaVelle, district board vice president, said what happens next is up to the city.

She said any proposal to use parkland would be “presented under the auspices of the city,” and that city and park district attorneys would have to “hammer out a proposal” that would be put before the Park District board. LaVelle did not have a timeline for that process.

The purpose of the two hearings — held Tuesday night near Jackson Park and Wednesday afternoon in the Washington Park field house — “is to inform us of the community’s views should a decision come to pass,” LaVelle said.

Wednesday’s hearing drew an overflow crowd of more than 500 people and dozens of speakers, but was less rowdy than Tuesday night’s hearing.

The audience heard a brief presentation by university officials who emphasized the tourism, jobs and the $220 million estimated economic impact the project would bring to a blighted area.

For the first half of the three-hour meeting, the speaker’s microphones were dominated by those in favor of the library being situated on a 22-acre parcel of Washington Park. They included local community and business leaders, students, teachers and school officials.

Most repeated the “Bring it on home” theme emblazoned on the posters displayed outside the field house, referring to the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama once lived and worked nearby.

“We are doing ourselves a disservice if we pass on this opportunity,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th).

“We never want to use parkland if we can avoid it, but the first African-American president of the United States, who happens to be a Hyde Parker — this is the time to do it,” said Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park advisory council.

Cecilia Butler, of the Washington Park Advisory Council, also approved, provided that an appropriate “community benefits” agreement could be negotiated.

But later, representatives of Friends of the the Parks, the Washington Park Conservancy and Preservation Chicago stood up to oppose the project, saying it would remove irreplaceable green space from public access.

Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, suggested the University consider an 11-acre city and CTA-owned parcel west of King Drive, just across the street from the park.

“The city should not be forced to make a choice between having the Obama presidental library on the South Side and losing valuable park space,” Francis said.

Park District Supt. and CEO Mike Kelly said he enjoyed “listening to both sides and seeing what they have to say.”

Kelly said almost everybody supports the library, “but there’s a pretty even balance between those who support it in Washington Park and those who didn’t.”

Kelly also noted that many at the hearing had spoken of the need for a trauma center at the U. of C. Hospital, and said, “There’s lot of people who don’t think very highly of the University of Chicago.”

But he added, “My thing is we have to win. If we want the library, we have to put our best foot forward.”

The U. of C. has been considered the front-runner for the library’s location, with New York’s Columbia University fast on its heels. The University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Hawaii also are contenders.

The U. of C., which had been mum on many specifics, recently acknowledged for the first time that it hoped to use parkland that it does not own and did not have a clear path to obtaining. That’s despite the university owning large swaths of property in the surrounding area.

The university proposal would need the approval of the Park District and the City Council. But the final decision will be made by the president and first lady Michelle Obama.